An Abuse Scandal with Nuns As Villains

By Nancy Ramsey
New York Times
Downloaded July 28, 2003

WHEN the Scottish actor and director Peter Mullan was growing up in a working-class Roman Catholic family, goodness was embodied in the clergy. It was the clergy of his pious mother, who contended with eight children and an alcoholic husband. It was the clergy of the Hollywood films the Mullan children watched on television: "Boys Town" with Spencer Tracy, "Angels With Dirty Faces" with Pat O'Brien, "Going My Way" with Bing Crosby.

Goodness, however, was not apparent in the local priest when the family's electricity was shut off, and Mrs. Mullan sent her son to the church for candles. "The priest got hold of me, and started beating me up," Mr. Mullan recalled over coffee last fall, when he was in town for the New York Film Festival screening of his second feature, "The Magdalene Sisters." "His first reaction was that I'd broken into his house to steal the candelabra. Then he told me that the reason we were so poor was that my father was useless." Through "blinding tears," the 10-year-old boy looked at the priest and thought, "You're no Spencer Tracy."

Fast forward to a night in March 1998. By then Mr. Mullan had taught European drama at the University of Glasgow; he had directed community theater with "every group imaginable prisoners, murderers, abused men, abused women, unemployed, employed," he said; and he had acted in several films, including Mel Gibson's "Braveheart," Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting" and Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe" (for which he won the prize for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival). He had also recently directed his first film, "Orphans," a dark comedy, set in Glasgow, about four adult siblings whose pent-up rage explodes the night before their mother's funeral.

That March evening, Mr. Mullan watched a television documentary called "Sex in a Cold Climate," which aimed a bright light on a previously hidden part of the Catholic Church's domain, the Magdalene Asylums. Functioning as both girls' reformatories and profit-making laundries, the Magdalenes were virtual prisons for thousands of young women, condemned, by the church or their families, to labor under sweat-shop conditions as punishment for their "crimes," which ranged from being dangerously pretty to having babies before they had husbands. "Mary Magdalene was forgiven, and we would be forgiven in time," one woman said she was told by the nuns who ran the asylums, which first opened near the end of the 19th century and, in Britain, were located primarily near the large cities.

"Sex in a Cold Climate" enraged Mr. Mullan, and he wrote the outline for his own film in a day and a half, he said. His rage is evident in every frame of "The Magdalene Sisters," which opens in theaters on Friday. The film is a stark portrayal of abuse, of existences limited to silent, daylong toil and silent, miserly meals, with the ever-present threat of sadistic beatings for any infraction of the rules.

The movie, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September, introduces its three main characters with brief vignettes detailing their falls from respectable girlhood. It is 1964. As musicians play traditional Irish songs at a festive wedding, a cousin pulls Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) into an upstairs room and rapes her; she tells what happened, and in the next scene, she is awakened in the early dawn by her father and bundled into a car with a priest. Then the film jumps to the lying-in hospital where Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has just given birth to a boy; her mother sits beside her, too furious even to look at him, and in short order, the infant is handed over to a priest for adoption and Rose is handed over to the Magdalene. These two girls are made de facto orphans for having shamed their families; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), the third, is an orphan in the literal sense. At 16, she is growing sexier by the day; the younger girls in the orphanage idolize her; local boys ogle her from the other side of the fence: clearly it's time for a stricter institution.

The three girls arrive at a Magdalene on the outskirts of Dublin the same day, and together meet their nemesis-to-be, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan). (Although the film is set in Ireland, it was made in Scotland, partly, Mr. Mullan says, because he feared "acts of sabotage.") Sister Bridget punishes the girls by whipping their thighs and shearing their heads. She revels in the money her laundry brings in, and presides over breakfast feasts with the other nuns while the girls eat a ghastly porridge. One British critic, reviewing Ms. McEwan's "simply glorious performance," called her Sister Bridget "the glitteringly cruel and cantankerous empress of emotional sadism."

Bernadette is the most headstrong of the girls, and much of the film's plot centers on her attempts to escape. Ms. Noone, who makes a stunning professional debut in the role, grew up in Ireland, in County Galway. "There was a Magdalene in Galway, right in the center of town," she recalled in a telephone interview. "Pretty much everyone knew that the bad girls went to the Magdalene. But people didn't talk about it; nobody wanted to say anything bad about the Catholic Church."

Mr. Mullan, 43, is not so reticent. He has graying blond hair and a mischievous glimmer in his eyes, and speaks in a gruff voice that belies his warm, self-deprecating humor. (So does the role he gave himself in the film: that of a vicious father who returns his daughter to the Magdalene after she escapes.) The last of the Magdalene asylums closed in 1996, done in not by their injustice but by technology, said Mr. Mullan, a Socialist. "Washing machines shut them down," he said. It's estimated that they had housed some 30,000 women in Ireland alone. "But it could be twice that," Mr. Mullan said. "The Catholic Church are the only ones who really know."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.